Actionable Research Lesson

E Afful

Actionable research is solutions-oriented environmental research that informs decisions, behaviors, and discourse outside academia. Many researchers may not understand the difference between actionable science and more common terms like “applied” or “basic” science. Also, most academic researchers are not trained in the practices and mindset needed to conduct effective actionable science or understand its ability to give their research real-world impact.

Assumed Prior Knowledge
Advanced undergraduates or graduate students studying environmental issues and systems.
Learning Objectives
  • Define actionable science and relate it to concepts like basic research, applied science, and advocacy science 
  • Relate actionable science to the concept of research coproduction
  • Illustrate the way in which actionable, solutions-oriented research typically requires cross-disciplinary collaborations and analysis of environmental and social systems.
  • Practice the skill of identifying individuals or organizations that have an interest in research that can inform decisions. 
Key Terms/Concepts
applied and basic science; advocacy science; co-production; stakeholders; decision makers; environmental and social systems
The “Hook” (suggestions for quickly engaging students)
  1. Compare and contrast research paper titles below. Ask, which of these is mostly likely to be actionable? Example: Both of these papers are about water turbidity and seagrass abundance, but can you spot the difference? Answer: The first one is all about a problem. The second one has something about a solution (i.e., suggested by the word “preventable”)

    • Davis, T.R., D. Harasti, S.D. Smith, and B.P. Kelaher. "Using modelling to predict impacts of sea level rise and increased turbidity on seagrass distributions in estuarine embayments." Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 181, no. 5 (November 2016): 294-301.

    • Wooldridge, S.A. "Preventable fine sediment export from the Burdekin River catchment reduces coastal seagrass abundance and increases dugong mortality within the Townsville region of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia." Marine Pollution Bulletin 114, no. 2 (2017): 671–8.

Teaching Assignments

The following are suggestions for assignments and/or in-class use.

  1. Actionable Research Design Assignment

    • Step 1: Assign the following reading developed by SESYNC leader, Jim Boyd:

    • Step 2: In class, use the associated Power Point to discuss the purpose of and process of using causal diagrams to ensure the research is designed to potentially inform decisions, behaviors, or discourse outside of academia. 

    • Step 3: Have the trainees split into small teams, identify a socio-environmental system and a key research focus or questions, then work through at least half of Step 2 to develop a biophysical causal diagram. 

    • Step 4: Over the next week and out of class, each team should complete all of the seven steps and have multiple resulting causal diagrams.

    • Step 5: In class, each team should present several of the causal diagrams, including the one that resulted in the identification of parties with interest in the socially relevant outcomes. 

      AR Loading and Loop Models


  2. Identifying Actionable Research Needs Assignment
    The exercise could be elevated if the instructor identifies three or four “potential knowledge users” (i.e., managers, practitioners, natural resource decision makers, corporate sustainability officers) who are willing to talk with the trainees as part of the exercise. If that is done, the instructor should identify research themes to assign to groups so they will be complementary to the roster of knowledge users. 

    • Step 1: Assign the following reading “Improving scientific impact: How to practice science that influences environmental policy and management” by Jonathan Fisher and colleagues. In class, use the associated Power Point based on this article to explain/interactively discuss each step the authors propose for researchers to take to ensure they understand the research needs relevant to potential knowledge users.

    • Step 2: Have the trainees split into small teams, discuss their research interests and work through the very first part of Action Step A-1 (identify potential knowledge users or organizations). 

    • Step 3: After class and on their own, each team should work to narrow the potential knowledge user  to one believed most relevant to their research interests. This would involve searching the web and finding relevant resources to learn as much as they can about the potential user’s job, the surrounding issues, and the likely needs.  They should prepare a short summary of what they expect those needs to include and why; and a written strategy for initiating a collegial and productive meeting with one of the potential users.

    • Step 4: Have the teams present their strategy to the rest of the participants to get feedback on their strategy.

    • Step 5: If the instructor has potential knowledge users identified, the teams should schedule a meeting with one of them and work their way through as many of the additional Action Steps in the Fisher et al. paper. 

Background Information for the Instructor
  1. What Is Actionable Research? Explainer

  2. A How-to Guide for Co-Production of Actionable Science

    • Discusses role of co-production in actionable science, offers recommendations on practices intended to help scientists, managers, funders and other stakeholders carry out a co-production.

    • Paul Beier, Lara J. Hansen, Lynn Helbrecht, and David Behar. "A How-to Guide for Co-Production of Actionable Science." Conservation Letters 10, no. 3 (May/June 2017): 288–96.

  3. Linking Knowledge and Action for Sustainable Development

    • Reviews approaches to the linkage of research knowledge and action and strategies to improve those linkages. Argues that the relationship between research-based knowledge and action should be understood as arenas of shared responsibility, embedded within larger systems of power and knowledge.  

    • Van Kerkhoff, Lorrae and Louis Lebel. "Linking Knowledge and Action for Sustainable Development." Annual Review of Environment and Resources 31 (November 2006): 445–77.

  4. Transcending the Loading Dock Paradigm—Rethinking Science-Practice Transfer and Implementation in Sustainable Land Management

    • Contrasts conventional research design and communication (the loading dock model) with need to transcend disciplinary and institutional boundaries by actively engaging with non-academic actors. Argues that this allows for better problem-solving of real-world issues.

    • Sebastian Rogga. "Transcending the Loading Dock Paradigm—Rethinking Science-Practice Transfer and Implementation in Sustainable Land Management" in Sustainable Land Management in a European Context, edited by Thomas Weith, Tim Barkmann, Nadin Gaasch, Sebastian Rogga, Christian Strauß, and Jana Zscheischler., 249–65. Springer, 2021.​​​​​​

  5. Science and Federal Environmental Decisions: A Survey of Interactions, Successes, and Difficulties

    • Uses information gathered by interviewing federal employees to identify a range of features and practices that contribute to the success or failure of decision-oriented scientific input. It also holds lessons for science-oriented federal partners.

    • Boyd, James and Jonathan Kramer. Science and Federal Environmental Decisions: A Survey of Interactions, Successes, and Difficulties. Resources for the Future and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, 2017.


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